current affairs poverty religion

Is Islamic extremism a development problem?

All the violent protests this week have been in the poor Islamic countries, not the rich ones.

One of the reasons why I write this blog is to explore the connections between things, and I think there’s an angle to Islamic extremism that we’re missing somehow. Listening to the debate on the radio this morning, it was all about religion and politics, and there was no mention of what must surely be a major factor – poverty.

Let me explain. This week has seen a spate of protests and acts of violence, sparked by the appearance online of a short and insulting video about Islam. The video is the work of a rather mysterious character who may well have been deliberately inciting this sort of response. Most of the protestors won’t have seen it. Those that have would know that it is, by all accounts, a rather pathetic piece of work and that it’s not worth getting wound up about it. Even if it did make you very angry, anyone with any education would know that it’s the work of an extremist individual, not the view of the American government or its people.

The problem here is that the rioters are not educated, and are unable to put the film in its correct context. They do not have all the facts, and are running on rumours and lies. Angry anti-western political factions and Islamist teachers are able to use that ignorance to their own advantage.

How do we know this? Because the violence has been worst in places like Libya, Lebanon, Sudan, or Egypt – all places with a poor underclass. Saudi Arabia is the home of Islam, and didn’t see any protests at all. Where were the protestors in UAE, Qatar or Kuwait? Protests in Turkey and other developing countries were tiny. This is not the ‘Islamic world’ reacting against the West – it is the poor countries of the Islamic world.

It’s not that these protests aren’t about religion, or politics. My point is that for extremist politics and religion to thrive, you need pre-existing grievances such as unemployment or inequality to feed on. You need an audience of uneducated people who will accept your explanation of those grievances – that America is your oppressor and that the West has insulted the prophet, for example.

I live in Luton, home to the English Defence League, and the dynamic is exactly the same. There are reasons why the EDL hold their marches in Luton, Stoke on Trent or Bradford, and not in St Albans or Tunbridge Wells. Extremists have always preyed on disenfranchised young people, particularly young men. There are always exceptions of course. Genuinely radical groups or individuals can turn up in any society, but the mob mentality that we’ve seen this past week needs ignorance and disaffection.

That begs a question about our response. Do we tackle the violence, by building big walls around our embassies and sending drones after terrorist suspects in the desert? Do we address the ideology, defending our ‘values’ and standing up for free speech? Or do we go after the root causes, the things that feed the hatred? There’s a place for all three, but perhaps the most effective response is ultimately the last one. The spread of violent fundamentalism might not be stopped by military force or ideological superiority, but with schools and literacy programmes, healthcare and jobs.

I don’t want to suggest that Islamic extremism would disappear if there was no poverty, but I do think it’s a factor that’s largely missing from the debate.


  1. An interesting piece, and it seems a valid point that is barely addressed. Thanks! If correct, this would also link in nicely with what the Taliban are up to in Afghanistan: literally eradicating education, burning books etc etc. By doing so, not only are they destroying those who oppose them right now, but in the long run will it could help them to recruit more people to their side. They will have an uneducated poor class exactly as you describe here.

    1. Yes, and they wouldn’t be the first extremist ideology to target higher education. China’s cultural revolution and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia both demonised intellectuals, keeping their followers in convenient ignorance.

  2. The poor qualities of human nature, along with the good, run through all areas of life. It is simply the common tactic which is used by the strong over the weak to keep them on their side, with a promise of something better. As I understand, Capitalism likewise, promised that better things would dribble down to the poorer. We are all gullible to the promise of something better without realising either the cost or the truth.
    What kind of education is needed?

    1. We could mention history as a specific subject, but actually what’s needed is the general knowledge to puts things into context. And we’re not just talking about education. The ignorance is a symptom of a deeper problem, which is poverty and inequality, countries that have allowed the wealth to accumulate for the few while neglecting even the basics for many others.

      There are no quick solutions, nothing that can ‘be done’ about it. It’s a generations-long process of improving lives and prospects, breaking down barriers and sharing power.

  3. I`m sure you`re right, but what motivates Christian fundamentalists in the USA? Not poverty, but a fundamentalist belief that Palestine must belong to Israel for the faithful to be lifted up to heaven. Of course, this is a form of profound ignorance, but this form of ignorance wields great power in America.

    1. Not sure who EN is putting her comment to but I do not think anyone has said that poverty is the only motivation. The quest to gain more power is in the rich and poor, in all sorts of ways. Reasons given by people for their beliefs are frequently red herrings. The religious leaders and the led are not immune to the less desirable aspect of human nature.

    2. Eileen: the immediate difference I’d see is that the Christian fundamentalists in the USA are not generally rioting in the streets. Their delusion is a different one. I would also attribute the outbreaks in the islamic world to the angry-young-men phenomenon. Otherwise it would help a lot if we all would realize that all of us are, as a matter of principle, in various states of delusion. It strikes me as a part of human nature.

    3. Christan fundamentalism is a different thing, it’s not a mob culture like the protests we’re seeing at the moment. Its much more passive aggressive and I don’t think we’re likely to see Zionist riots anytime soon.

      But it is a strange phenomenon, for sure. I’m a Christian myself, which makes it doubly hard to understand. I think extremism needs fear and ignorance, but those can be different sorts of things. Poverty is one, but fear about security is another. As we see with gun culture and military spending, there’s a real streak of paranoia about safety and security that runs through American culture. That can be a fuel for extremism too.

  4. I’m not so convinced. I don’t think it’s poverty or education per se, which is driving these protests, but rather the Western view of how to *fix* poverty and uncritical thinking.

    There is no doubt that there is a level of orchestration to some of the protests, but there’s also a level of populist support. Most of that popularity isn’t really against the film but again the West’s long history of interference in those countries.

    UAE, KSA etc don’t have the large poverty stricken underclass, but this wealth means that the traditional way of life is largely protected. Poorer countries on the otherhand are pushed around more as the West seeks to use them as leverage in international affairs (or new markets for their banking etc sectors).

    So yes poverty and lack of education, but what I think’s really coming to the fore is how utterly knacked of with being continually told what’s wrong with their culture and why the West is oh-so-better.

    1. Jeremy – For sure, everywhere the extremists would have less strength without the ignorance they prey on so we must try to reduce ignorance and provide better education and health. But who is in control of that?

    2. I am dubious. What I see among traditional muslims living in Europe is that they often are torn. Especially young men don’t have a well defined role anymore (actually that is not only a problem of muslims, but for muslims from traditional families the issue is more pronounced). The traditional life is well protected in the Emirates, you say, but the question may well be: does the majority of the protesters really want “the traditional life”? From what I understand a great many poor young muslims would happily live a “Western” style middle class life. I sense a numbing, fuzzy, undirected frustration there. Not much analysis, only sheer undirected anger that seeks a direction, a focus.

    3. That’s an interesting distinction, and it’s easy for us to underestimate the level of hatred that many of these places have for the West. Some of that is legitimate, and a lot of it is lies.

      It’s also easy to underestimate how little information gets through to people who can’t read and have no access to global media. I remember watching a documentary set in Afghanistan, and an interview in which a man attempted to explain why there were American planes flying over his village. “A man called Osama Bin Laden blew up a building” he says. “Apparently it was a tall building – it must have been four or five storeys.”

      That was in a remote village and things will be different in cities, but there can still be a chronic lack of context. If your Imam tells you your are poor and unemployed because of American imperialism, you won’t know any better.

      Of course, we don’t help ourselves by acting like imperialists, by doing things like running nuclear weapons programmes ourselves but denying them to other countries. I can understand a lot of the anger.

  5. Jeremy: I had exactly the same discussion yesterday, and I gave almost exactly the same answer. I vaguely recall an analysis several years ago, perhaps it was a book, that warned against the danger from a witches brew of poverty and unemployment among disenfranchised young men. In Los Angeles they join street gangs. To a lesser extend that happens in Germany, too (although many join football clubs instead). But I also think it really boils down to “angry young men”. When I was an angry young man, I wrote angry articles for the school newspaper, kicked a sandbag in the martial arts club, swam off my frustrations in the swimming club and my father sent me working through much of the summer vacation on construction sites (in his own company) until I fell into my bed in the evening into deep, dark, dreamless sleep. In retrospect I’d say all that was pretty healthy. But even I had a friend who was less fortunate, who could not really go home after school, who was hanging out in the streets, who was in the same martial arts club, but he was there to learn street survival skills. He flunked out of his college prep classes, ended up in the drug scene, committed suicide in his early 20s. What if I had grown up without being guided by parents and grandparents? Without being sent to school, given things to do, without having a safe and generally calm and stable family where I could seek emotional, financial and literal shelter any time if I had to? What would have become of me in certain situations without that fall-back option and without the relatively rigorous analytical skills and broad general education I received from this cozy middle class background and the good schools I was allowed to attend? I can only guess. Maybe I would have ended up as a member of the “Borussenfront”, a Neo Nazi Borussia Dortmund football hooligan group in our area. But the discussion is difficult. Mainly because I can discuss this with other people with backgrounds similar to my own. My Muslim friends all have college backgrounds, work in the academe or in management positions of the one or the other sort. They would all agree. They shrug this video thingy off as stupid, cheap, nonsense. Not worth watching really. A waste of time to give it a second thought. But the people who are rioting will not discuss this. Because it is not the issue. This video is merely a trigger that opened the pressure valve. Most of the people demonstrating in the streets probably didn’t watch it or, if they did, most likely did not understand it well. But the discussion is also difficult, because the agitators who deliberately heat up the situation will immediately bite back: “Not only do you offend our prophet, now you also say muslims are stupid and uneducated!”

    @dichasium: K.: There are a billion uneducated angry young men out there. Once again I see no quick and easy solution. And the problem is prone to get worse with dwindling resources and still growing populations. More and more angry young men with families they cannot feed.

    1. What a luxury it is to be able to talk hypothetically about what our lives might have been like if we didn’t have the stability of a good home – I’m with you on that one. I was at boarding school out in the forests in Kenya, and there was plenty of opportunity to run wild in the woods, tracking animals, building bonfires, climbing trees. And I also wrote articles for the school newspaper.

      Your point at the end there is an important one, that the West can’t be seen to patronise Muslims by implying they are uneducated. That’s why I mentioned the EDL and the broader themes of extremism. And fortunately, educated Muslims are able to call for calm and prove that notion wrong.

      1. Whilst I am aware of the different factors, I cannot help thinking about the street riots we had here last year and all human relationship problems. I am always rather puzzled why these type of conversations keep cropping up in their many varieties, and still go on so much about causes, when we do, (I’m sure), all know that unfair treatment provokes anger in many, if not most people, and that anger and fear is exploited by many others who seek power. I realise that there are no quick or easy solutions, but where do you Jeremy, draw hope of a generations-long process and sharing power? As Stefan says, it is likely to get worse. We just seem incapable of removing man’s inhumanity, even by degrees. It seems to me that we just change the appearance. Does the talking amongst us just fade away, or can we really be helping at all? Two questions there for you Jeremy, if you please.

        1. I disagree, I think we are changing by degrees. When you look at education, human rights, international cooperation, healthcare, the number of conflicts and so on, there’s no doubt that we are steadily improving on so many levels. That progress is moving at very different speeds in different places, and it can easily stall or even start moving backwards in some of them, but it’s happening.

          The recent protests have been in various countries and each has their own context, but let’s take Egypt as an example. It’s just had a revolution, it’s very early days for the new government and it takes time to fix the decades-long legacy of Mubarak’s regime. But Mubarak is gone, we’ve had a difficult but democratic election. The country is fraught with problems, but it is changing dramatically and it can continue to do so. We have to be patient.

          Does the talking matter? Absolutely, because we’re always refining our understanding, getting a better grasp of what matters and how things can be done better. I know it feels like our discussions usually don’t go anywhere, but I get to see what readers and commenters don’t see, which is where the traffic to the blog comes from, including the university departments, schools and charities that link in. I’ve had phone calls or meetings with all kinds of interesting people. I’m not kidding myself that the blog is influential in any way, but we’re contributing to the debate in more places than you might expect!

          1. Thanks Jeremy. Of course there are many examples of progress around us but I was thinking overall. Hopefully you are right and my feeling wrong, but I don’t suppose we’ll find a scientific analysis. In connection with my feelings on progress, I just read your pieces on feeding 10 billion. They are rallying. Time for urgent action one commenter said. Kick off a green revolution for Africa you say, and we must do everything in our power. I agree, I agree, I agree, but my question of how to get these things done still sits in a void for me.

  6. How to get these things done? That is, fortunately, not our responsibility! Our task is to use whatever power and influence we have to move things in the right direction, and use our own skills to effect change where we are. We can’t take responsibility for anything more than that or we’d go crazy with the impossibility of it all.

    I’m a writer. It’s what I love most and do best, so I put my energy towards writing about problems and their solutions, looking for good ideas to promote and push on their way. If I were a plant scientist, I’d want to be working on that green revolution for Africa. If I were an architect, I’d want to be working on affordable zero-carbon buildings. I don’t know how to do those things, I have to leave that to others. But every week I can post little pieces of the answer, projects to support and campaigns to spread the word about, interesting people who have got new perspectives, questions we should ask.

    We each have a different sphere of influence, but we all have one, and we’re capable of being more influential than we might initially think. You should read John-Paul Flintoff’s book ‘how to change the world’ – it’s probably the neatest summary I’ve read of how each of us can make change happen.

    1. Thanks again Jeremy. Not just a writer are you, bit like a freind as well as you’ve just brought my feet back onto the ground. I realised, long since, that I can only do my best to understand the human situation, then (still with an open mind), to treat others according to that understanding, and to give an opinion when asked. The few blogs that I engage with have made me hope for more (perhaps, incited the revolutionary in me!). But you remind me that it can only be more communication, in the hope of ‘Progress’.
      So, let’s hope that this quote from a Lord Dunsany is totally wrong!! :
      “Humanity, let us say, is like people packed in an automobile which is traveling downhill without lights at terrific speed and driven by a four-year-old child. The signposts along the way are all marked ‘Progress'” (Lord Dunsany)

      Ps. Thanks for the book recommendation. I think being reminded may be all I needed. The Brahma Kumaris motto is ‘Change the world – Change yourself’ – not a bad pointer either.

  7. In the 1970s, after years of brutal repression by the state, the Egyptian president at the time, Anwar el-Sadat , permitted the Brotherhood to operate quietly and to open a Cairo office, and the Brotherhood formally renounced violence as a means of achieving power in Egypt. The group did not, however, reject violence in other circumstances, and its leaders have endorsed acts of terrorism against Israel and against American troops in Iraq.

  8. I quite agree that poverty fuels aggression and hatred. Poverty is insecurity: the poor is insecure, has nothing to loose and cares less about social harmony or justice.
    But I do not agree to such terminologies as “Islamic extremism or fundamentalism” etcetera. Such phrases are quite alien to Islam. They are 21st century coinages that describe people but are erroneously ascribed to religion.
    People of various religions display varied forms of “defence or support” for their religion and these are not necessarily dictated by such religions. Culture, at varied levels, have become submerged with religion and vise versa and this is yet another 21st century reality. When humans who profess some religions mistake faith for fate and interpret religion with their various cultural ideologies we often forget too quickly the lofty teachings of such religious.

    The reality in the case of Islam is indeed that of fundamental individuals or group apparently constricted as Muslims due largely to geographical antecedents who in their greed have elected to exploit religion for personal or group ends.

    Islam means peace and is not at all the creed of these extreme individuals and groups.
    Love for others above self is the creed of Islam and true Muslims. Even in wars, Islam forbids and condemns any form of harm to children, women, the aged and even life stock and farmlands.

    It will do the World a great deal of good to reach beyond the cosmetics and seek the fundamentals. And where this seem too difficult, it always pays to let the dead burry their dead rather than jubilantly crucify faith for exigencies of fate. Remember, what goes round …

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